Dr. Cleary's Prescription

Dr. Eilish Cleary, our Chief Medical Office of Health, has done New Brunswickers a tremendous favour. In demonstrating what the practice of public health should be all about - she clearly articulated what most of us know, the state of both our social and physical environments can make us sick, as well as undermine the well-being of our communities.

In her report, she recommended, in the face of possible shale gas development, that government spend its dollars on preventative measures up front, to avoid the high costs of dealing with ill-health and social problems after the fact.

The Green Party goes one step further. As the technology for extracting shale gas is so full of risks, we wouldn't go down that road at all. There is no point in calling for a moratorium, as the other opposition parties do, when regulations, even if they are diligently enforced, cannot make shale gas extraction safe or innocuous for communities. Just leave it locked in the rock. Let's work on building a green economy instead.

Dr. Cleary's report is saying we have a choice: we can work to keep people and communities healthy or leave them to the social and environmental consequences of risky ventures. All too often, governments choose the latter, allowing harm to befall people and their communities, and then paying dearly to provide prescription drugs, hospital care and social services on the back-end to try to cope with the consequences.

As if to underscore the point, the Alward government announced yesterday it plans to deregulate air pollution from smaller sources. You know the ones - the sulphur dioxide and particulates emitted right in your neighbourhood.

Our thinking about how to provide affordable health care has been trapped within the walls of our hospital care system for too long. The solution to our health care challenges is to have healthy people, yet government allocates just 1.2% of what it spends on hospitals and prescription drugs to public health services. Your read it correctly,1.2%.

We all know the stats. New Brunswickers are among the least healthy of all Canadians. Incredibly, 74% of adults and 58% of teenagers have a chronic illness. You would think Public Health would be one of the priorities for allocating spending.

Most people assume that government would strictly control the release of substances that cause cancer or damage fetal development. Not so. In fact, neither pollutants nor pesticides are tracked in this way, whether they are released into the environment or the workplace.

Similarly, most people would assume that government would take decisive action to identify and help families at high risk from exposure to radon in their homes or arsenic in their wells. Not so.

A similar laissez-fair approach is taken to the quality of our food supply, though this largely falls into the jurisdiction of the federal government.

There is much political rhetoric about preventing health problems before they occur, but follow the dollars. Government just hasn't made the required investments. Today, 40% of government's operating expenditures go to fund health care. Twenty five years ago it was just 25%. Meanwhile, public health spending remains miniscule.

Perhaps it's time our capital budget, which accounts for investments in things such as new hospitals, be expanded to include investments in public health. The returns down the road would be immeasurable.

David Coon